Analysis: the awesome power of the illegal high

BOGOTA, Colombia — “Drugs win drug war.”

That was the prescient headline of a 1998 dispatch in The Onion. “Despite all our efforts,” the satirical newspaper reported, “the U.S. government has proven no match for the awesome power of the illegal high.”

Funny stuff. But a dozen years later, serious news outlets are writing pretty much the same story.

“After 40 years,” the Associated Press reported this month, “the United States' war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.”

As a correspondent in South America, I cover the upstream end of the illegal drug business, the waste and failure of which has seemed to make no difference to policymakers in Washington.

It’s not that drug-war skeptics have some magic formula. But for a long time, U.S. lawmakers shied away from even considering alternatives to our zero-tolerance militaristic approach for fear of being labeled soft on drugs and losing the next election.

That’s why it’s been fascinating to watch drug-law reforms bubble up from cash-strapped state governments in the U.S. And though changes to our approach overseas have been slower to materialize, the Obama administration — which announced its new drug control strategy this month — is making a few moves in the right direction in places like Colombia and Afghanistan.

“For once we have the wind at our backs instead of in our faces,” said Bill Piper of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, the leading organization in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. “More people are talking about alternatives and saying in public what they thought in private.”

Many of the domestic initiatives are practical moves to deal with budget deficits and prisons overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders.

Californians, for example, will vote in November on a referendum on whether to legalize marijuana for casual users, a policy that some studies suggest could bring in more than $1.4 billion in annual tax revenue.

New Jersey recently became the 14th state to approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes, a move that the District of Columbia may follow. If so, we could have medical marijuana dispensaries in the nation’s capital sometime next year.

States are getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. And several top-notch universities, including Harvard, are experimenting with hallucinogens as possible treatments for cancer, post-traumatic stress and depression.

But will these sensible changes at home translate into more effective U.S. policies abroad?

Skeptics point out that two-thirds of Obama’s $15 billion annual drug-control budget is dedicated to interdiction and law enforcement even though many studies show that programs to prevent and treat drug abuse are far more cost effective.

Washington has also poured huge sums into forcibly eradicating plots of coca and opium, the raw materials for cocaine and heroin. But peasant farmers often press deeper into the wilderness to grow more drugs. And around the world, heroin and cocaine remain relatively cheap, potent and widely available.

Last year, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan, finally acknowledged the obvious. He put a stop to U.S.-supported programs to eradicate opium poppies in that country, saying the effort was turning local communities that depend on drug profits against the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

“Eradication is a waste of money,” Holbrooke said. “It might destroy some acreage, but it didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban. So we're going to phase out eradication."

Instead, there will be a greater U.S. focus on fighting high-level traffickers and promoting legal economic activities in Afghanistan, the source of 93 percent of the world’s heroin.

In Colombia, Washington is sharply drawing down the budget for forced eradication of coca and opium, though the idea is for the Colombian government to take over some of those chores. Yet both governments have endorsed a more “holistic” approach.

In former guerrilla and drug-trafficking strongholds where the Colombian government is trying to win over the civilian population, eradication is being closely coordinated with efforts to set up police stations, build roads and schools and provide alternative sources of employment for farmers trying to leave the drug business.

Then, there’s Mexico where the ferocious violence seems like a flashback to Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s.

Washington is providing the Mexican government with $1.4 billion in equipment and police training to target drug gangs. But since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006, Mexico has registered nearly 23,000 drug-related killings.

Both governments seem at a loss over what to do next which means that, for now, they’ll likely stay the course.

Yet there have been some rhetorical shifts from U.S. officials. Secretary of State Clinton and others have acknowledged American responsibility for domestic drug consumption and for the flow of assault weapons and drug profits to bad guys south of the border. There’s also a growing recognition that Mexico will likely get nowhere unless the government cleans up its corrupt law enforcement agencies.

“There’s a realization that the drug war hasn’t accomplished what had been hoped for,” said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “We are seeing some new attitudes but this hasn’t always translated into new policies.”

After years of floundering, however, even small policy changes should be cheered.

And as for what to do in Mexico, policymakers can always turn to The Onion for inspiration. One of its latest dispatches from the drug war was headlined: “DEA hires Lil Wayne to use up all drugs in Mexico.”

John Otis covers Colombia for GlobalPost. He is the author of a new book "Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombian Guerrillas, American Hostages, and Buried Treasure."